I just finished reading a book where a couple moved to an small town where the families of the inhabitants go back generations. As in most stories using this particular scenario, the couple had a hard time fitting in because they were outsiders.
A counterpart of this story is the Hallmark movie version where a big city success goes home to the small town where she was raised and suddenly, she finds everything she’s ever wanted.
Basically, these are the same story, just told from different points of view. The returnee, of course, is welcomed because she is one of them, and left unsaid is the part where if she had been a stranger, things would not have worked out as well for her.
There is a third version of this story, where a person is stranded and finds a home in the town. Bagdad Café and Doc Hollywood are two examples.
When I moved here, I expected the first version to hold true, especially since I’ve lived in small towns before and never found in them a home except what Jeff and I created between the two of us. In fact, when I left the area where Jeff and I had lived for two decades, only one grocery clerk and a librarian bothered to say good-bye. When we left the previous place, no one but our landlady noticed. And the place before that, not even the landlady cared.
Obviously, the second version can’t hold true because I am not coming back to my roots. I have no real roots. My parents left the east coast where they were raised, camped out in Denver to grow their family, then headed on to the west coast where they’d planned to go all along.
I’m also not stranded here accidentally, but it was accidental (perhaps) how it came about. Although I had never signed up with Zillow, they sent me an email one day saying, “This is your new house.” I looked at the photos, and I agreed. It was my house, the one I had been conjuring in my mind, and a person goes where their house is, regardless of what problems she might encounter once she moves in. (I never even saw the house in person before I moved in, which freaked out my real estate agent, but didn’t bother me because . . . well because it was my house.)
Luckily, my story is a happier version of the first example. Although most people who live here have generational roots, some going back to when the town was founded, some people seem more than willing to accept new people, especially if the new people are willing to get involved, such as writing mysteries for local events. There might be undercurrents I am unaware of, but it seems as if this is a town on the cusp of a new identity, no longer dependent solely on agriculture and ancestry, but not yet sure where it is going or where it can go. (Businesses seem reluctant to come here, except for marijuana businesses — those seem quite willing to move here, though some of them are having a hard time getting employees, and some are having a hard time finding housing for the employees they import. One problem with the area is that less than half of the houses are owner occupied, a transiency that makes businesses nervous.)
This changing identity might explain in part the willingness to accept strangers, but the willingness also comes from the long-time newcomers (those who have been here for a decade or more) and from the returned natives (those who left to find a different life, and then returned to look after aged parents).
Despite my acceptance from others, I do think that some of the small town clichés should find their way into my new book, the one that’s currently hatching in my brain. And there certainly should be examples of the way people around here talk: “She’s the sister of my nephew’s ex-wife.” “Her grandfather is my uncle.” “He is the son of my aunt’s sister-in-law’s mother.”
Some of these relationships boggle my mind. I can’t even imagine knowing so much of one’s family tree let alone other people’s. Oddly, despite all the knowledge of one another’s ancestry, no one seems to know anything about the people who lived in this house before 1965 or so. Not that it matters, I can make up my own history for the house, but I am curious about previous tenants. It seems so much an old woman’s house. The owner before me was a man, but he had to move out because it was my house, at least that’s what I jokingly tell him, but both owners before him were old women. One of those women had a relative who was able to help her get grants to upgrade the electricity, the heating, some windows, the plumbing, the roof, leaving the kitchen, the rest of the windows, and stucco work for the previous owner to take care of. But before those women? No one seems to know.
I don’t think I need to go back that far for my story to be as mysterious as I hope it to be. After all, there are other houses in the neighborhood where nefarious folk can live and have lived. (A murder took place in the house across the alley a few months before I moved here.)
And, if I want my story to have an elder-related sub story, then the people should be more contemporary to help emphasize the current issues of the very old. Which means, I have to create the characters and figure out how they fit into the story. Luckily, I have no deadline for finishing the book. I don’t even have a deadline for starting it.
All I know is that I somehow the unique smalltownishness of this place needs to be reflected in the story.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.